Every spice has a song.

Didn’t you know that?

Haldi’s is Aayega aanewala, raw and overflowing with longing; garam masala’s is Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan, unchanging but exuberant; East Indian bottle masala is Bohemian Rhapsody, all highs, lows and trembling excitement.

Finishing touch: The tempered seeds release a nutty aroma. Samar Halarnkar / Hindustan Times

I couldn’t quite figure out the song when the new spice didn’t sputter like mustard seeds. It was a balmy November day when I dumped them in olive oil for the great Indian tadka (tempering). They released a nutty aroma that I had never encountered before.

It’s all very exciting, isn’t it, infusing your food with something new and strange?

The seeds were smaller than mustard, black but flecked with a dark yellow in parts, and I knew nothing about them—not even their name. It all seemed quite romantic though, and as the seeds sputtered, I sensed music, a remote, out-of-the-way melody wafting into my kitchen from the lower Himalayas.

I asked the man I bought them from (at an Uttarakhandi stall at a crafts mela near Delhi’s India Gate), but he didn’t know. “Yeh toh pahadi tadka hai ji (This is a tempering from the hills)," was his unhelpful explanation.

Two weeks later I had my answer. The intriguing little seeds were jakhiya. Sorry, I haven’t found a translation, despite asking around and buying three books on Uttarakhandi food. I’ve stocked up on jakhiya, and I’m finding wonderful new interpretations of old favourites. Here’s what I’ve tried thus far:

1. My grandma’s Goan fish curry tempered with jakhiya.

2. My grandma’s Goan fish curry tempered with jakhiya, curry leaves and asafoetida.

3. A curry with a stronger base to absorb the earthy flavours of jakhiya.

I am happy to report everything worked out well, and jakihya is my latest, favourite kitchen melody. If you know more about it than I do, I would like to hear from you.

I also picked up some Uttarakhandi thyme, Uttarakhandi garlic (rougher looking and much stronger than its city cousins) and some jhangora, or barnyard millet, which I intend to try—as the hill people suggested—as a rice substitute.

We were never given to organic foods as a family, but I must say that my encounters with Uttarakhandi flavours (all grown without pesticides as part of a strong government-sponsored grass-roots organic programme) are strongly encouraging me to listen to new tunes and notes. The latest is amaranth (translation: er, pigweed), a hardy grain that we added to our ITC atta (chapatti dough) as calcium fortification. The wife needs stronger bones, and amaranth has about 60% more calcium than other grains.

It’s also rumoured to prevent greying, but I have no confirmation on this. We buy our amaranth from the Navdanya organic store in the crafts market of Dilli Haat in south Delhi. I’m sure you can get it in Mumbai. I’ve found that an online company called thealtitudestore.com stores a lot of organic produce and will deliver—if you live in Delhi, Gurgaon or Noida. I haven’t actually ordered since I’ve found stalls at sundry fairs and bazaars.

But do make it a point to visit any Uttarakhandi fair that comes your way. I’m curious enough now to make a trip to the hills and into their kitchens. If I find it, I know one Uttarakhandi spice that I intend to try: bhanga or hemp seeds. Botanical name: Cannabis sativa. Sounds familiar?

That’s one song I would like to hear.

Dastakar Fish

Serves 5

(Note in my food diary: Inspired by ingredients bought from Himalayan spice producers at the Dastakar Mela in Delhi, November 2009)


1 kg fish (I used singhada, or John Dory)

2 onions chopped fine

2 heaped tsp ginger-garlic paste

3 tomatoes finely chopped

2 2-inch sticks of lemongrass

Red-wine vinegar

2 tbsp of soy sauce

1 tbsp sesame oil

Grind all the following into a paste:

10 dried Himalayan red chillies

6-7 (or 3 large) small garlic pods

1 tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp soy sauce

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp red-wine vinegar


In a pan, heat sesame oil. Fry onions till golden brown. Add the ginger-garlic paste and fry. Add the masala paste, bhunno (stir fry) with sprinklings of red-wine vinegar and 2 tbsp of soy sauce. Add the tomatoes and fry till reduced. Add 1 mug of water and bring to boil. Simmer. Add 1 kg of fish, add salt, and let the fish cook on low heat. Switch off when ready and add lemongrass.

Now, heat 1 tsp of sesame oil, sputter jakhiya seeds. Pour over fish and cover with lid.

Write to Samar at ourdailybread@livemint.com

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is the managing editor of the Hindustan Times.